You’ll likely have heard of Japan’s wagyu (beef).
Wagyu refers to several Japanese breeds of cattle, the most famous of which is the Japanese Black. Wagyu are genetically predisposed to yield a high percentage of fat, and their meat is known and prized for its intense marbling. In Japan, the best wagyu is often labelled according to its area of origin; Kobe beef is probably the best known of these outside of Japan.
Until I started researching our trip, I hadn’t come across Hida Beef, one of the most prized beef brands in Japan. Raised in Gifu Prefecture, cattle must be at least 14 months old and the beef must be checked for quality and grade by both the Hida Beef Brand Promotion Conference and the Japan Meat Grading Association. Beef that does not make the grade is not sold under the Hida Beef label.
Locals suggest the superiority of Hida Beef is down to a single bull named Yasufukugo. Although he died nearly 20 years ago, Yasufukugo sired many thousands of calves; more recently, he has successfully been cloned from frozen cells; his genetic heritage lives on in the continued excellence of Hida Beef.
Before leaving home, I tried to do a little research into Hida Beef restaurants in Takayama, indeed I even asked our ryokan owner to make a reservation for us in one that I saw recommended on Chowhound. However, on arrival, we realised that the location was not ideal, and that there were a great many options in our little neighbourhood. We asked our ryokan host to make a recommendation instead and she said that although she hadn’t visited very many of the restaurants serving Hida Beef, she and her extended family had recently very much enjoyed a celebratory family meal at nearby Maruaki restaurant. What’s more, it was less expensive than the place we had originally considered. Sold!
Takayama draws many tourists, and Maruaki is on one of the main roads in the centre of town, so we were not surprised that they had English translations on the menu.
As the menu explained, only beef ranked at quality levels 3 to 5 may be labelled as Hida Beef. The standard plate consisted of ranks 3 and 4, with the premium plate offering rank 5 only. (Ranks 1 and 2 are not sold under the Hida Beef brand, but as regular beef).
We chose the standard Hida Beef plate featuring 300 grams of different cuts of beef, and a small serving of vegetables. We figured we’d quickly get through 300 grams, and could order an individual dish of one cut of Hida Premium Beef afterwards.
In the end, we were so blown away by the standard Hida Beef, that we really didn’t feel we could be any happier with the next grade up, which was more than twice as expensive. We bought an additional 100 grams of standard Hida Beef sirloin and savoured every bite.
Go on, look again at that incredible marbling! People often describe tender meat as “melt in the mouth”, but never has that phrase been truer than for these morsels; the meat just disintegrated on the tongue releasing a really fantastic flavour.
Each table features a round charcoal grill, on which diners cook their own meal, at their own pace. Clever venting means the smoke is drawn away, so there’s no unpleasant smokiness in the room. Metal tongs are provided for cooking, and wooden chopsticks for eating, though we kept forgetting, and reaching for the grill with our chopsticks.
Alongside our beef, we ordered an extra round of vegetables, which consisted of cabbage, onion, mushrooms, a slice of sweet pumpkin and a couple of jet black peppers. From the shape, I assumed the black peppers were chillies, but they were mild, like sweet peppers, with no heat at all. If you know the variety, do please let me know! Cabbage is a little strange cooked on a grill, but seems to be the most common offering, as we discovered when dining at other yakiniku restaurants during our trip. We also ordered a side of noodles in broth, which were inexpensive and tasty.
We ate well throughout our trip, but still I’ve been dreaming about the Hida Beef ever since Takayama!
Address: 6 Tenmanmachi, Takayama